It was the largest gathering of European royalty and other heads of state in years, yet in many ways it was a day that meant more to the downtrodden of one of the Continent’s smallest countries.
From the Queen of England and the Emperor of Japan to struggling Moroccan and Turkish immigrants, an estimated 100,000 mourners came here Saturday to bid farewell to Belgium’s King Baudouin I, Europe’s longest-reigning monarch.
He died suddenly of a heart attack last Saturday while vacationing in Spain. He was 62.
The groundswell of emotion that followed Baudouin’s death surprised even many Belgians but showed that the life and style of their king--a man little known outside his own nation despite a reign of 42 years--had touched his subjects in a unique way.
Earlier last week, mourners waited up to 10 hours, even slept in the streets outside the Royal Palace, for a chance to file quietly by Baudouin’s casket.
“There are kings who are more than kings, they are shepherds of their people,” said Belgium’s primate, Cardinal Godfried Danneels, during a funeral Mass at the city’s St. Michael’s Cathedral. “King Baudouin was such a king.”
The breadth of Baudouin’s popularity was reflected in the list of those who eulogized him: a Cabinet minister, an artist, a community worker, a prostitute and an investigative journalist.
On one level, the funeral was a stunning occasion--where members of the Continent’s royal families joined to mourn the first death of a reigning European monarch since Britain’s George VI died more than 41 years ago.
Aside from Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II and Japan’s Emperor Akihito, those attending included the kings of Spain, Norway and Sweden, the queens of the Netherlands and Denmark, the Duke of Luxembourg and Monaco’s Prince Rainier III.
Presidents Francois Mitterrand of France and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt headed a long list of non-royal heads of state.
Former President Gerald R. Ford represented the United States.
Many along the funeral route were in tears, but most honored the request of Baudouin’s widow, Queen Fabiola, who had asked that the occasion be a celebration of the king’s life rather than a mourning of his death. Few wore black. The queen wore a white suit.
There was loud applause as the procession moved through the city’s northern working-class districts, areas heavily populated by immigrants.
Although he was considered an intellectual and shy by nature, the king’s modest lifestyle and efforts to support weaker elements of Belgian society made him a hero of the country’s have-nots.
While he reached out to the average Belgian, he was best known for his conciliating role between Belgium’s two sparring linguistic groups--the French-speaking Walloons of the south and the Flemish-speakers of the north.